Every year, February 22 is designated as “Cover Day.” People choose one of the other participant’s tracks to cover. In 2016, I didn’t know about Cover Day until it showed up, and was too timid to make the attempt. In 2017, I covered a song by Chris Greacen (the instigator of all this madness) and was pretty happy with my effort. My 2018 cover was a learning experience. I learned that I have no business trying to sing neo soul. I was traveling on the 22nd this year, so I had to put off my cover until today.
Choosing which song to cover is a challenge in itself. It has to be something I like or for which I hear possibilities. There are some songs that are locked into their own identity and very hard to reimagine. I’ve always had the philosophy that if you’re going to cover a song, you need to make it your own, not just re-record what amounts to the original track with your voice on it. Occasionally, I’ll hear a decent cover that’s close in original genre or style, but the best covers go in a different direction.
As of this writing, there are currently 407 songs posted on the site for 2019, and I haven’t been able to keep up with my listening. A couple of songs from the earlier part of the month had been sticking with me, and it was hard to choose between them. In the end, I opted for Troll by Jonathan Aronson, posted on February 6.
Jonathan has a very distinctive style, normally guitar-based indie rock with distorted vocals that meshes Bob Mould and Frank Zappa in varying ratios. Sometimes he’s stream-of-consciousness, sometimes there’s a monster hook. Troll straddles that line a bit, but definitely leans more toward the hook side of things. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Jonathan’s tracks over the last four years, and his thematic choices and lyrical approach has helped me adjust some of my own dogma about what songs are.
I’m including the original in this playlist so you can hear it prior to listening to my version.
- Troll Jonathan Aronson
- Troll (Jonathan Aronson Cover) Ray Toler 3:38
So with the choice made, what to do with it? I liked Troll’s theme, and the melody was simple enough to throw against all sorts of chord progressions. I always like hearing how the same melody completely changes character when you change the foundation. In this case, though, it was going to be a major genre shift that would drive the production. I briefly flirted with doing a ballad, a 50s rock and roll style, and a couple of others, but I kept coming back to this big beat electronica idea. I’ve always loved combining hip hop or dance music with hard guitars. Probably a Duran Duran / Run-DMC influence combined with the heavy metal phase from my early teen years.
Ok, so genre is selected. I typically approach a cover in the following broad steps:
- Transcribe the lyrics – writing or typing them helps get the song in my head
- Work out the chords and decide if I’m keeping or changing things
- Create a structural map of the original and decide if I’m going to mess with that
- Work out measure counts for the original structure
- Think about production hooks that I want to incorporate
- Create a new software project in the DAW and mark out the structure I’ve decided on
- Put down a scratch drum, bass, and vocal track
- Start filling in the rest of the pieces
- Re-record the vocals if needed
That’s in a perfect world, of course. In practice, those steps get jumbled around a bit. I got the structural map completed and set markers in my software. I dropped the movie samples in so I’d get the timing of those areas right.
Let’s talk about the samples for a second. Both the noise at the beginning (beer bottles being clicked together) and the “I’m having a good time” samples are from the 1979 film, The Warriors. I had watched that movie a day or two either before or after I first heard Troll, and knew I wanted to use the good time sample – it perfectly captures the entire ethos of an online troll. It doesn’t matter how negative the situation is, they’re deriving pleasure from the chaos, just as David Patrick Kelly’s character, Luther, does in the film. When that sample drops, I just envision a 4chan or SomethingAwful army of trolls getting amped up for a night of rampant antagonism.
Kelly’s (improvised) signature line later in the film, “Warriors… come out to plaaayaaayy” is the ultimate troll as he taunts a rival gang. I decided to do that line and change it to Jonathan as a good-natured taunt since he had written a song describing his dissatisfaction with electronic music gear.
I rarely use samples in this fashion – it’s too much trouble to get clearance, and I’ve always been a rule-follower when it comes to potential liability issues. That’s probably held me back in some cases, as there are numerous examples of people who just took the sample and ran with it, figuring they’d work it out later if it got popular. It can have mixed results (ask The Verve how it worked for them with Bitter Sweet Symphony), but my feelings on the practice are still evolving.
Back to the process. I picked up a guitar and practiced for awhile to make sure I could play at least some of what was in my head. A piano temp track provided root notes for the entire piece.
I recorded the chorus vocals next, then the verses, then the “I’m a troll…” break vocals. This song needed more of a sloppy rock vocal and actually suffered on the takes where I sang with more precision. The “I’m a troll on your wall” section was kind of seat-of-the-pants, so I’m really glad the timing worked out and I didn’t have an odd measure in there.
Jumping ahead in my process, I added effects to various vocals, then added the rock bass starting with the first chorus. Guitars came next for most of the song, then I moved to the drums and synths. I knew what I needed in my head, so selection was just browsing patches until I found a sound that worked. The one happy accident is the high bass note in the first two verses. I had recorded it with one sound, but switched the sound to a different one, which was set an octave higher. It gives it a potential energy that is realized when the lower synths come in. It’s not an instinctive choice for me, but I really like bass parts in the higher registers – I need to incorporate that more often.
One additional production note – this is, ironically, the most produced track I’ve done all month, and I used a lot of the techniques I use on more involved projects. In particular, it has a relatively high track count. This makes applying different processing to various parts a lot easier. For example, if I wanted to kick in a delay on just one word in a vocal, I can either automate the effect, or snip out the word and put it on a different track with appropriate effects. Which approach is correct depends on the project, but I tended to split things up on this one.
“Finishing” the song kind of snuck up on me. I was just plugging away when I realized that I’d pretty much done everything. I listened to it all the way through, made some mix tweaks, printed the synths to disk, then worked on the fade out.
This track has a couple of wins and losses:
Wins: I really like the first “I’m an asshole” drop – the beat that comes in hits hard and is exactly the head-bobbing thrash I was looking for. The shouted chorus is infectious and gets stuck in your head. The intro and first verses work pretty well, and I was very pleased that I got the mix as balanced as it is. My dynamics are pretty much right on target for modern streaming practices, and that’s a challenge for me on a dense, hardcore track.
Losses: I like the techno sections, and I like the chorus, but I’m not sure they work together. The transition into the first chorus is abrupt and jarring, like someone switched the record. I think that could be addressed with more staccato guitar instead of longer chords, but it may also be that I need to pick which song I’m doing and stick with it. I couldn’t get the EQ on the harmony part of the chorus right, so end consonants like S and T get dropped. The guitar parts are adequate over all, but I’d probably go in and chop/edit to get hard edges to a lot of the short notes. I also used too many different guitar patches – I’d want to spend some time finding the right tone. I said “come out and play” instead of “come out TO play.” That last one is a little thing, but the kind of minor defect that I obsess over. I love the “I’m having a good time” sample, but it does suck the energy out of the track. It might be better laid over a beat.
On the whole, I’m happy with this one. I learned some things, got some practice on a couple of techniques, and made some creative choices that I probably would have been afraid to do on my own songs
(Jonathan… come out and plaaayaaaayy)
I'm a troll
I follow you online
To give you a hard time
Facebook, Twitter, your blog
That's me commenting on your pointless post
I'm a troll
I'm an asshole
Conservative, liberal, independent
Such a fool
Anarchist, you're a mess
I'm a troll
On your wall
I'm an asshole
Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Aronson. All rights reserved
- Guitars: Squier Stratocaster through Rocktron Chameleon Online
- Synths: Spectrasonics Omnisphere
- Bass: Spectrasonics Trillian
- Drums: Spectrasonics Stylus RMX
- Vocal FX: Butch Vig Vocals, Soundtoys EffectsRack, Little AlterBoy, and Echoboy
- Samples from The Warriors
Next up: Nubivagant
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